Bully: Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

by: Miriam Mogilevsky

A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.

Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.

One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.

A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”

It is worth noting, however, that Malcolm X’s characterization of house slaves as having easier lives than field slaves was not necessarily always accurate. Because they worked in the house near the master, female house slaves were much more likely than field slaves to be sexually victimized by their masters, and slave women had no legal protection against sexual assault.

In any case, this is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.

The question of why members of the LGBT community would support anti-gay politicians is a valid one, and we should ask it. However, flippantly referencing the legacy of slavery is not the way to do it. Furthermore, many people in the African American community resent the comparisons between gay rights and civil rights. As a white man, Savage should be mindful of this when he uses analogies involving slavery.

The rest of Savage’s tweet is no better. “Grab their ankles” is, obviously, a reference to being the bottom during anal sex. Historically (and, to some extent, currently), bottoming has been viewed as the “inferior” position. Through the mid-20th century, for instance, it was still considered “normal” for straight-identified men to occasionally have sex with other men, but only as long as they stuck to being the top. The men who bottomed, on the other hand, were the ones who were “really” gay, and who bore the brunt of the marginalization. (If you’re interested and haven’t read it already, George Chauncey covers this ground and much more in his book Gay New York.)

So, in insinuating that LGBT conservatives are “grabbing their ankles” by supporting Romney, Savage is perpetuating the idea that being a bottom is degrading and wrong. One would think that a supposedly progressive sex columnist like Savage wouldn’t want to send that message.

Most importantly, however, Savage’s use of the word “f*****” in this context is harmful. Unlike gay activists who choose to reclaim the term and use it to describe themselves, Savage is clearly using it with its original purpose—as a slur. In referring to people whom he dislikes and with whom he disagrees using this word, Savage is saying that there’s something wrong with being, well, a f*****. Although some actually do defend Savage by equating his tweet with a “reclaimed” use of the word, it clearly isn’t.

Savage’s statement would be homophobic and problematic enough for anyone to make, but it’s especially wrong when coming from someone who started an entire campaign to encourage young LGBT people to persevere in the face of bullying. Given that many of the people he hopes to reach with It Gets Better have probably been called “f*****” by their bullies, what kind of message does it send if Savage himself uses that word derisively? (Hint: a crappy one.)

One could argue, of course, that Savage was simply “angry” and that his anger led him to respond the way he did. However, while someone could perhaps be forgiven for making such a remark verbally without having had enough time to think it through, it’s a bit harder to justify once you’ve put it in writing and onto the internet. And even then, the use of the slavery analogy in particular makes me seriously question whether or not Savage even cares whether or not he’s being offensive.

Unfortunately, in crafting his response to GOProud’s endorsement, Savage chose to ignore the history behind the language he uses. In doing so, he demonstrated yet again his unwillingness to examine his own privilege and to consider the effects that his choice of words may have on others.

Miriam Mogilevsky is a senior at Northwestern University. In a year she will graduate with a degree in psychology and pursue a career that involves asking people about their feelings. She enjoys reading and writing about social justice, politics, culture, sexuality, and mental health. For this purpose, she has a blog, a Tumblr, and a Twitter.

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4 responses to “Bully: Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

  1. Pingback: Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans | Brute Reason·

  2. Focusing particularly on “fag” for a moment, I think this is more part of a wider problem with “reclaimed” words.

    Savage uses fag all the time – primarily to describe himself, his chums, other gay guys, admittedly in what seems to me a quite self-deprecating way. Obviously in his local network, “fag” is a term of affection. For a lot of people it’s still not.

    It’s a sort of Schoedinger’s Slur – does Savage mean it in the neutral way he usually uses the word, or does he mean it to be cruel? I don’t even know, and maybe it’s the nature of reclaimed words that they’re always going to have a bite to them. Maybe the uncertainty around such words mean they should only be ever used as explicitly positive things to dodge the problem.

    I know intent doesn’t matter, but I think this is a natural outcome of having these borderline words, half-reclaimed.

    It’s also, in part, an internet problem – I am willing to bet that in Savage’s life and local mileu, everyone uses fag. Where I am, no one does. We use queer a lot, but I’m sure there are still places where that’s more recently an insult and would raise eyebrows. The internet flattens out the world so we can all talk, but cultural differences are still there. Swear words and in-jokes are intensely regional and, as someone who’s crafted his persona out of ballsy outspoken-ness, Savage has chosen to keep his local dialect, as it were, instead adopting a sort of web Esperanto. Fag-jokes, “pansy-assed” and all.

    I’m not sure I have much of a point beyond all people use reclaimed words at their peril. But “fag” is very much a word in Savage’s personal dictionary and, on that basis, I think it is different to someone who never uses the word whipping it out only to use on his enemies.

  3. Miriam–

    I love your work and agree with most of it wholeheartedly. In this instance, I agree about 50%. I feel like your exegesis of the term “house” was entirely off the mark. He was referring to the ‘house’ of Representatives and should be reprimanded more for his lack of proper capitalization than for a tactless allusion to slavery.

    As a reader of Savage’s blog and newspaper column, as well as a longtime listener of his Savage Lovecast, I’ve heard him refer to groups like GOPride in a similar way many times. It was always in a ‘house and senate’ way rather than a ‘house and field’ way. One example comes to mind: “Congress Cocksuckers.”

    I won’t argue that his nomenclature begs for less vitriol and more filter, but I think that the one thing we cannot indict him for (in this singular case, unlike many others) is racism. I often find myself criticizing some of Savage’s comments and have even debated a few with him in person, but I will have to say that your particular reading of this tweet was unwarranted.

  4. Pingback: In Our Words In Review: Politics « In Our Words·

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